The Iliad: A New Translation by Homer
How much did Homer know about war? Well, for a start he’s pretty shaky on military tactics. Warfare in the Iliad breaks down into a series of impromptu duels, to which heroes commute via otherwise redundant chariots. Instead of the phalanx and the struggle of a mass of troops to outflank the enemy line, it’s individual warriors who determine the course of battle. Nor does Homer provide any explanation for the logistical implausibility central to the story. How is it that a Bronze Age army numbering tens of thousands is not only able to support itself on a foreign expedition for a decade, but to do so in such style its officer class can dispatch oxen by the hundred when circumstances call for a hecatomb? About three hundred years after the Iliad was first written down, Spartan armies could only besiege relatively nearby Athens in the summer months; the campaigns couldn’t last longer until the Spartans established a fort at Decelea.
I’m not suggesting we should think less of Homer because he plays fast and loose with military facts of life. We’re talking about the plain of Scamandar, not Sandhurst or West Point. But the poet’s indisputable carelessness in this area is a corollary to something more disturbing. The Iliad, despite its generous helpings of gore and guts, isn’t totally upfront about what happens when men get handy with the spear’s business end. Homer goes heavy on the violence; he skips the worst of the suffering.
Such a claim must be blasphemy to Stephen Mitchell, whose sleek new translation is informed by a very contemporary sensibility. In his introduction, Mitchell – a Zen practitioner, it’s worth noting – argues that when we consider the dozens of decapitations, the eyeballs rolling in the dirt (two pairs, by my count), the pierced livers and tongues sliced off at the root, moral judgment is ‘inappropriate’. When Patroclus spears Thestor ‘as if he were a prize-winning marlin, we feel his pride as a sportsman’. But though it’s certainly true that the dispassionate appreciation of brutality is at the heart of what’s fascinating in Homer, I wouldn’t go as far as to say we should check our morals at the door. Godlike in our transcendent point of view we may well be when reading the Iliad; but it’s the perspective of a callous Greek god, not the Buddha.
Actually, Homer’s dispassion, though incredible, is nonetheless contrived; he has his thumb on the scale. Consider what he leaves out of the book and what’s in. Penéleos brandishes Ilioneus’s head on spear ‘like a poppy upon a stalk’; Agamemnon kicks the dismembered torso of Hippolochus through a line of troops, rolling it ‘like a log’. There is plenty of horror, but it is not the full-spectrum variety, but contained, limited, because nobody in the Iliad, not a single combatant, has the ill manners to suffer the kind of lingering death that must have been the common lot among Bronze Age fatalities. The closest anyone comes to such a death is when Meriones stabs Adamas below the navel, ‘the most agonizing way for a man to die’. Hapless Adamas bucks like a captured bull, but only ‘a little while, not for long’. The mode of departure may be horrible, but it remains an unbroken law in Homeric etiquette that the end must come quickly – darkness soon covers the eyes of the fallen.
Contrast Homer with the war writing of the twentieth century, where slow death is a recurrent motif and the maiming of soldiers a complementary counterpoint. The first example to come to my mind is Private Wilson in The Naked and the Dead catching a bullet in what we’ll call the Adamas Zone. What follows is a long doomed haul on a stretcher, an odyssey of pain, before he dies. Or one could recall the noble indignation of Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry, with his ‘Does it matter? – losing your legs?’ or the drawn-out agonies of ‘The Death-Bed’. There are countless examples, all moral equivalents to the World War One cliché of the dying Tommy in No Man’s Land crying out for his mum. These modern depictions of prolonged suffering represent a moral innovation in the general understanding of armed conflict. They put an enormous divide between our world and Homer’s.
In the Iliad, war is an inherent aspect of the human condition. Like aging, it is something both inevitable and foolish to resist, as much an essential part of the natural order as the crashing waves and beasts to which the Achaeans and Trojans are frequently compared. Most of us are so far from this way of thinking it’s hard to tune in properly. Like a liberal traveller in foreign lands, we readily concede our values are out of place and ‘inappropriate’. And a great writer – of all things, a great poet – with the mindset of a military contractor is a hard pill to swallow. Mitchell can’t do it, as is evidenced by the Homer next-door depicted in his introduction. Trying to normalize Bronze Age ethics, he writes that ‘well into the twentieth century, distinguished men were still killing each other in duels over so-called “affairs of honour”.’ True enough – indeed, it happens today – but ‘Bronze Age’ is still the right pejorative for such behaviour.
Mitchell’s rather ahistorical, relativist take on the poem is light years away from that of Robert Graves, who didn’t flinch from acknowledging the disgraceful behaviour of Achaean ‘heroes’ and couldn’t bring himself to believe Homer shared their outlook. For Graves, the Iliad is satire. Mitchell departs, too, from the influential classical scholar M. I. Finley, whose The World of Odysseus uncovered a Greek culture in which Homer taught the Hellenes ‘glorification of piracy... and encouragement of robbery’.
So, how does Mitchell’s critical angle affect his translation? To be honest, not that much. He avoids the poetic diction that hobbled Robert Fitzgerald and creates something stripped-down and Hemingway-esque. Compare Mitchell’s ‘As dawn spread its saffron glow over all the earth’ with the same line from one of the most popular of the modern translators, Robert Fagles: ‘Now as the Dawn flung out her golden robe across the earth’. Mitchell’s translation is fast and robust, but perhaps a little too un-epic for some tastes. His irregular five-beat lines don’t smack of capital-L Literature quite as does Fagles’s stately iambics. To many tastes, there will be too much of the creative writing class about Mitchell, who ditches most of the repetitive epithets – ‘fleet-footed’ Achilles, ‘flashing-helmeted’ Hector, ‘wine-dark’ sea, ‘rosy-fingered’ dawn and so on – a decision many readers will regret. Imagine a translator of Hamlet deciding ‘mortal coil’ is too hackneyed to reproduce.
The epic is whittled down in other ways. Mitchell bases his translation on the recent Greek edition of textual scholar M. I. West, the Homeri Ilias, and disposes of the parts West believes to be interpolations. Gone in its entirety is Book 10, the Doloneia. There Odysseus and Diomedes conduct a nighttime raid, slaughter sleeping Trojans and execute Dolon, a prisoner tricked into thinking he has made a bargain for his life. Putting aside the arguments about whether Book 10 deserves to be considered part of the original – and there is no consensus – it’s worth noting that its excision dovetails nicely with Mitchell’s philosophical position. Without it, it’s a bit easier to believe Homer is above, rather than below, our moral judgements.
If Book 10 doesn’t carry the authorization of whatever mistily conceived individual or group we imagine when we talk of Homer, it still carries the imprimatur of posterity. It was probably added in the sixth century BCE under the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos. It would have nestled under Alexander the Great’s pillow with the other twenty-three books, and people have read it for two and a half millennia – another reason this elegant and inspired translation is best left to those looking for a fresh take on a familiar story. It will never be close to definitive. Occasionally, too, there’s the irksome suspicion that something abrasive and stimulating has become smooth under Mitchell’s hand. When Agamemnon calls on Zeus to enforce respect for a truce, he cries:
Whichever contenders trample on this treaty first, spill their brains on the ground as this wine spills – theirs, their children’s too – their enemies rape their wives!
At least, that’s what Agamemnon says in Fagles. Mitchell’s ruler of men ends the entreaty ‘may their dear wives be other men’s slaves and whores.’ Odd, isn’t it, that someone avowedly aiming to be ‘eminently plain and direct’, as Matthew Arnold advised Homer’s would-be translators, should skirt the word ‘rape’.